Teams question wisdom of radical plan

Updated: September 4, 2004, 10:08 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to

A radical plan to shake up qualifying during Grand Prix weekends in 2005 is gaining grass roots support from Formula One fans. But many teams have reservations about the plan and are reluctant to support it.

The plan, created by Jaguar Racing boss Tony Purnell, involves 10-lap qualifying races on Friday and Saturday with the grid positions for those mini races being set by random draw. The combined finishing results of those two races would then determine the starting line-up for the Grand Prix on Sunday.

"People say that the present (one-car one-lap) qualifying is boring," Purnell said. "But I think very strongly we should be entertaining people. So I have this idea of having little mini races to entertain people on the Fridays and the Saturdays to put a little more uncertainty on the Sunday race, and (yet) very much to make sure that the best racing driver wins at the end of the year."

Here's how Purnell's Plan would work.

Friday: Two untimed 45-minute practice sessions in the morning. Ten lap mini race in the afternoon, which would be televised live. The drivers would draw numbers from one to 20 out of a hat (that event would also be televised) to get their starting positions. This would guarantee a mixed up grid with say, Giorgio Pantano on pole in his Jordan Ford and Michael Schumacher 18th in his Ferrari.

Saturday: Two untimed 45 minute practice sessions in the morning. Ten lap mini race in the afternoon televised live. Friday's race would be shown again on TV followed by the Saturday race. The lineup for the Saturday race would be the reverse of the Friday race so, for example, Schumacher would now be on pole and Pantano 18th.

On both days, the actual race would last about 20 to 25 minutes, leaving television the other 40 minutes of the "qualifying hour" to show replays, interviews, etc. No pit stops for fuel or tires (except to replace a flat tire) would be allowed.

Sunday: A normal full length Grand Prix. The starting lineup would be set by a driver's average of his combined results from the two mini races. If, therefore, Mark Webber had finished 10th and sixth, his starting slot would be eighth. Ties would be broken by the driver who set the faster lap in the race.

Purnell is convinced that the drivers would have to fight hard and overtake as many cars as possible in the mini races to improve their starting spots for the main race. Invariably, there will be faster drivers who draw a starting spot behind slower drivers, so they will be in a hurry to get to the front.

The critics of the plan say that you don't see much passing in an F1 race now, and they don't see that scenario changing much in a 10-lap race.

"I think a radical shake-up is a good thing," said Renault's director of engineering Pat Symonds. "But I think the premise that a 10-lap race will lead to overtaking is a mistaken one."

Symonds said that at tight, twisty tracks like Monaco and Hungary there is a history of almost no passing.

"There is no guarantee that people will overtake in a 10-lap race any more than in a 70-lap race," he said.

You can pass at tracks like Spa and Hockenheim, however.

"We've seen quite clearly with Hockenheim followed by Hungary that the qualifying doesn't control the racing, the circuit does," said BAR Honda's technical director Geoff Willis.

The standing start is one of the most exciting and dangerous parts of a Grand Prix weekend. Would having three starts dilute that exquisitely thrilling moment usually reserved for Sunday afternoon? Would the delicate clutches on an F1 car be able to withstand three starts? Would there be more wrecked cars?

"I'm not that keen on it," Williams technical director Sam Michael said of Purnell's Plan. "I'm quite happy with the practice and qualifying we have now. It is a good idea to keep that stable for some time.

"To go and do a 10-lap race, if you are talking about a race that starts with a standing start, you are probably only carrying 25 to 30 kilos of fuel at some tracks. So you are unlikely to see any overtaking. You've got three times the risk or damaging parts, so you are much more likely to have cars wrecked by Friday or Saturday."

Michael also pointed out that the current FIA rule proposal to sharply limit the number of tires a driver will be allowed to use during a Grand Prix weekend would have to be modified if there were going to be the two extra races.

Another issue that would have to be looked at is making sure specialized sprint or qualifying cars designed just to race 10 laps could not be used. The cars would have to be impounded at night to verify the same car is used in all three races.

One reason the small teams like the current one-car-at-a-time qualifying system is that it guarantees TV exposure for their sponsors, something they miss if all the attention is on the race leaders.

"The coverage we receive has been vital," said team owner Eddie Jordan. "It (Purnell's idea) could be a brilliant concept. However, we as the teams not in the firing line to win or to be podium-placed teams at the moment have only one source of coverage and that is the qualifying. Where you get a compromise between fulfilling that absolute crucial commercial need and offsetting it and creating a good, viable entertaining qualifying is always going to be difficult."

While not against the Purnell Plan, Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn says the teams need to know far in advance what the rules are so that they can design their cars accordingly.

"What is seriously lacking in our sport is a proper mechanism to assess those ideas on a proper basis to decide what is viable," Brawn said. "Maybe (we can) have one race a year where we can try all the new systems to see whether it works, because the problem is we commit (and) we have to design the cars; and then we get frustrated because the car we designed doesn't suit the qualifying system.

"I don't really want to support or condone Tony's proposal. I think it's very interesting, but all we should really have is a proper mechanism to go out there and find out whether it is better than what we have now."

While it has not worked out as well as hoped for, the current one-chance, one-lap qualifying has helped to mix up the grids. Rain in qualifying for the recent Belgian Grand Prix certainly created an unusual starting lineup, and eventual winner Kimi Raikkonen qualified 10th.

F1 has had three different qualifying formats in the last three years. It's important to get it right this time.

Is qualifying a show in itself, or is it just a mechanism to get the cars lined up on the track for the race? Symonds believes it's the latter.

"It is very important that we don't spoil the main attraction for the sake of the sideshow," he said. "Yes, qualifying is important, but the race is much more important. So let's make sure we don't have a boring race as a result of a poor qualifying procedure. I do like the idea of a little bit of chaos, and I think that the single-lap qualifying has brought that in. I use the word chaos advisedly. But I don't like things to be too contrived. I don't think that that is what F1 needs."

On the other hand, Friday and Saturday on an F1 weekend could use a bit of a jolt to make them more entertaining for the fans, be they at the track or watching on TV.

Will Purnell's Plan ever really happen? Given the way the teams had trouble agreeing on any changes to qualifying this year, it's doubtful that such a radical change will be voted through for 2005. But it's good for F1 to keep thinking of new ideas. After all, if F1 is supposed to be the cutting edge of technology, it should be on the leading edge of other aspects of the sport as well.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and